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Green building: Solar panels and earthquake faults don't mix

March 13, 2011 | 10:36 pm

Collegsolar
The Los Angeles Community College System, blessed with $5.7 billion in voter-approved bonds, had a grand plan to be a national model of green energy: its nine colleges would be self-sufficient in electricity thanks to solar, wind and geothermal power.

But major blunders and miscalculations over the last six years cost the program $10 million, including $4 million for designs of solar and wind installations that would never move to construction. One of the biggest problems: Three solar arrays had to be abandoned because they were planned to be built above seismic faults.

The missteps, uncovered as part of a six-part Los Angeles Times investigation of the college construction program, offer a sobering lesson to builders of public and commercial buildings who plan arrays of photovoltaic panels: Check nearby seismic faults beforehand.

In Los Angeles, two fields of solar panels were proposed for Southwest College, which is bisected by the Newport-Inglewood fault. The deadly Long Beach earthquake of 1933, with a magnitude of 6.4, occurred along that fault. And school collapses in that earthquake led to creation of the Division of the State Architect, which monitors seismic safety in construction of all public schools in California.

So in 2009, when the Community College District assigned Chevron Energy Solutions to design solar projects that would be built right on the earthquake fault, it was up to the Division of the State Architect to review them.

Not surprisingly, it rejected the plan. School buildings cannot be constructed above earthquake faults, and neither can fields of solar panels, the state found. State inspectors feared that heavy steel solar panels built over a parking lot near the corner of Western Avenue and Imperial Highway would crash onto bystanders in an earthquake.

The college district was forced not only to drop its planned solar arrays at Southwest College, but also to scrap a proposal to build fields of solar panels and wind turbines on a fault that runs through Mission College in Sylmar, near the epicenter of a deadly 1971 earthquake.

So far, the district has built six megawatts of solar energy, of a total of 16 megawatts now planned -- well short of the 60 megawatts in renewable energy that would be needed to meet the original ambitious goal of self-sufficiency.

Read more about the green energy plans gone awry at the Los Angeles Community College District.

-- Michael Finnegan and Gale Holland

Photo: These solar panels at Pierce College in Woodland Hills are among the district's green energy projects that were built. But millions of dollars were poured into designs for installations that proved so impractical or unpopular that they were scrapped.

Credit:  Gary Friedman /Los Angeles Times

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